So we’re less than a month away from spring training and the Cubs’ roster has changed significantly, but not exactly for the better. It seems like the plan has been to jettison dead weight, improve the defense where possible, and just tread water for now. Some fans will complain about the Cubs’ apparent inclination to just take their money and sit pretty on profits as they haven’t been throwing truckloads of money at big name free agents to get better fast. Of course, that’s what they did after 2006, and while that “plan” worked for two seasons (and almost a third, remember they were in first place for a few days in 2009!), it all came crashing down because they didn’t invest in the minors at all until this past season.
It seems to me that a lot of it has to do with how broken the MLB roster is as well as the relative lack of organizational depth. The Cubs are trying to restore some depth with shrewd trades and allowing good free agents go (i.e. Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena) in exchange for compensatory draft picks in addition to their own #6 pick in each round. Given the size of the payroll, still weighed down by huge contracts that have yet to come off the books, the weakness inherent in the rotation, bullpen and position players still left on the team and how much it would have cost to sign Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols and then have enough left over to sign some random pitchers, it’s not difficult to realize that trying to plug glaring holes with the few elite free agents you’d actually want to spend money on is akin to setting a huge mound of money on fire.
You look at the Fielder and Pujols contracts and most folks would tell you that it will probably work out for about a third of that contract before it turns into an albatross like Alfonso Soriano‘s did. You look at certain guys like Jimmy Rollins and you say “He’s old and probably not that good anymore.” You look at pitchers like C.J. Wilson and say that maybe he’s not worth what he’s asking for. Then you see Mark Buehrle and while he’s probably still solid, he’s not exactly young anymore and maybe it’s not a good idea to throw money at him. There are reasons the Cubs didn’t set their available funds on fire this offseason. After the names I just listed, check out the rest of the available free agents…it’s not exactly a bonanza of awesome. I highly doubt the Cubs’ new front office would overspend on even proven relief pitchers as they were loathe to give Kerry Wood the $3MM mascot fee. The 2013 free agent list is a bit prettier and maybe the team is saving for some of those free agents, but the list is still full of “meh” and so, again, it’s not difficult to understand why the Cubs would rather save their money. Most of the guys on that list for next offseason who the fans would even consider are probably going to get extensions from their parent clubs anyway, so free agency, for the most part, is out as an avenue for Cub expenditures.
This doesn’t mean the Cubs are NOT spending money. They obviously blew a ton of it on baseball operations in bringing in Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod among others to clean up the mess left by the last century’s worth of general managers and bad owners. They brought in some new scouts and analysts because in this day and age, the more brains you have working for you, the better. They are probably paying quite a bit of money to design a Cubs analytical software to streamline player evaluations throughout the franchise. They of course have to pay upkeep for all the minor league and foreign affiliates in order to sustain a pipeline of whatever little talent there currently is to get to Chicago. These are expenditures that are separate from what they might spend to get foreign talent like Yoenis Cespedes (if they are even interested in that huge price tag), but should be mostly separate from all the money earmarked for business purposes, like installing new ads and a new electronic display board in Wrigley Field.
One thing that was comforting to find out from my time at the Cubs Convention was that the Cubs weren’t just standing pat despite not spending much on the MLB roster. In the sessions I attended, I found out that the team was developing new land and facilities devoted to better training and preparation for Cubs players from the ground up. They were building these facilities in Mesa and also in the Dominican Republic, where players would be housed, taken care of both skills-wise and medically, and would be indoctrinated into the new Cubs Way (whatever that is, haven’t figured it out yet). To some degree the team is also hoping to improve player facilities at Wrigley Field. All of these proposed changes involve money. I’m not sure how much money, as that is ironically an “intangible” to most fans and the Ricketts aren’t mandated to reveal all their figures to the general public, but I’d be willing to wager it’s a lot of money.
The money that could have gone to free agents in order to maintain the status quo is instead being funneled into building a better future, at least in my view. Instead of crippling the budget with albatross contracts, the Cubs are going to ensure that the team has better scouting, player training and development, and better preparation for those players to play at the big league level. I believe they are trying to do more behind the scenes (and certainly more than my amateur baseball mind can fathom right now) in order to not be so short-sighted. They are not focusing on next year, but they are laying a groundwork for every single year beyond in order to build a better, and better prepared, pipeline of talent that Cubs fans should be proud of (at least we hope so).
Heck, the Cubs could even incur a small tax penalty if they just go over slot in the draft by 4.9999% and that’d be fine as long as that overage was used to sign someone who could be awesome. At least that’s setting one bundle of money on fire instead of the whole stack.
The unfortunate thing as I opined after watching “Moneyball” was that with the new rules in effect, the Cubs won’t be able to spend as big in the draft and to sign foreign free agents. They should have done it years ago but for whatever reason, be it ownership or bad decisions, they did not. Now we have a brain-trust that would have been capable of executing the Oakland Moneyball plan or the Tampa Bay plan, but will not be able to as they are now handcuffed by new restrictions. Like the lack of tangible money-spending, that doesn’t mean Theo Epstein and friends aren’t doing anything; it just means they’re doing something we haven’t thought of yet. And maybe that’s a good thing, because what the Cubs have been trying pre-Theo was stuff that wasn’t working anyway, so a new approach could be just what the doctor ordered. A lot of this is just blind faith backed by what we know of the people now in charge, but I feel that the Cubs are going to be spending their fortune efficiently from here on out, instead of barbequing a mountain of money like when they signed Soriano.
This is part of the reason I can’t wait to see our shitty team in 2012, because I know it’s likely to portend great things for the Cubs in the coming years (yay high draft picks!). Of course, with Bud Selig wanting the second wild card soon and also deciding on the Theo compensation to the Red Sox, the Cubs may still have to spend a bit more money (doubt Bud will make the Cubs part with major prospects) but could possibly sneak in to the postseason with a few of our (s)crappy players playing way over their heads. It could happen. That’s baseball.
Probably won’t get into the postseason…but it’s fun to dream, and that’s why they call us World Series Dreaming. The other parts where the team is smarter and also spending intelligently? That part seems to be real, and that’s something to be excited about.